I debated Jerry Falwell recently on Tavis Smiley's National Public Radio show. The subject was the current talk about "values" in the presidential election campaign. Tavis first asked Falwell to name a "short list" of the values issues that were important to him. It turned out to be a very short list indeed. All the Religious Right leader could talk about was the gay marriage amendment. That was it.
I pointed out that overcoming poverty was a values issue, as was protecting the environment, as was fighting unnecessary wars on false pretenses, as was the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. As he often does when he fears he might lose a debate, Falwell eventually began to interrupt what I was saying and moved into personal-attack mode, saying that I was "as much an evangelical as an oak tree." The television preacher from Lynchburg has such a way with words.
But then he really got vicious. He challenged me: "You voted for Al Gore, didn't you, Reverend? Admit it! Admit it!" he demanded. "You didn't vote for George Bush, or George Bush Sr., or even Ronald Reagan!" He had me. I was finally exposed on National Public Radio - a Christian who hadn't consistently voted for Republican candidates. How could I ever again claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ, who, as we all know, was pro-rich, pro-war, and pro-American?
It was an absolutely partisan and theocratic moment. There is only one way that Christians can possibly vote: That's exactly what Falwell was saying. And that's exactly what the Religious Right is saying. And they say the only values issues are things like gay marriage and abortion. Forget everything the Bible says about the priority of the poor, about Christian peacemaking, about respecting God's creation, or about the image of God in every human being - including our enemies.
I happen to think that both abortion and gay marriage are important issues, but they are not the only issues. Many Christians are getting tired of the tirades of the Jerry Falwells who repeatedly claim that all values issues have to do with sex and that every Christian must vote for their Republican friends. Family values are important to many Christians, but so are social values. And many Christians are pro-family without being anti-gay the way Falwell is. And many of us believe that a deep commitment to the sacredness of human life requires a consistent ethic of life, which also regards the destruction of war, the death penalty, and the scandal of global poverty as deeply moral concerns, not just abortion.
The future of American politics should be a real discussion of values; that would be a very welcome development. And we may be reaching a "tipping point" when many other Christians and the media who cover faith and politics will decide that the Religious Right should no longer dominate the discussion. Let them have their say, but let other Christian voices be heard. The control of right-wing fundamentalists over the "values" conversation may be coming to an end. And the uncritical alliance between the Religious Right and the Republican Party should be named a theocratic mistake and idolatrous allegiance (as is any religious left's uncritical alliance with the Democrats).
Later in the day, my friend Tony Campolo called and I told him what Falwell had said. Tony is a Baptist preacher and as evangelical as you can get, but he will not likely be voting for George W. Bush. Imagine that. We agreed the next time either of us is in a debate with Falwell, we will name him for what he really is - a fundamentalist who has stolen the word evangelical.